Yuletide 2019 was a splendid time for PaintedRoads. Eight jolly folks, all wishing to escape winter's gloom, joined Echo and me, Thai guide Natt and support crew P Gor and Thon, for a tropical beachside ride from Bangkok to Phuket.
PaintedRoads original tour, South Thailand was conceived as a winter escape, mixing balmy weather, quiet roads and beaches, super cycling, delicious food, and plenty of cold beers. During its eight-years, it has never failed to fulfil people's expectations, and I feel confident in saying Christmas 2019 is no exception.
Many thanks to Jo, Mike & Berta, Gill, Debbie, Last Minute Paul, and Brian & Sil for coming along and being such good fun folks. I will leave the images below to tell the tale.
Koh Yao Noi.
As with all PaintedRoads tours, South Thailand is always in a state of flux as the route evolves and improves. This year we made a change of route that has long been on my mind, a change that will become a feature of the tour - at least until the next change.
What happens when the tour leader takes a wrong turn.
Temples are always a good spot for a picnic lunch.
Friend and guide, Natt,
Visiting a Buddha cave.
The road less travelled.
Tip-top support is guaranteed from our regular driver P Gor, with back up from Thon.
"We suffer so you don't have too" was deemed one afternoon, over a respectable quantity of refreshments, to be the motto of the LabRats. Truth be told, spirits of the 'Rats were high as a kite that day as we bathed 'neath the sun at our lakeside rest-day campsite, high as the collective spirits were all of the time - perhaps excepting the time of the incident of the mosquito swamp, less said about that the better though. High spirits are, after all, an essential quality when exploring a remote wilderness by bicycle.
There were 14 of us, including Echo and me. That is to say 14 PaintedRoads LabRat cyclists, plus our Mongolian cycling guides Batbayar and Tool, along with four ever-cheerful local truck drivers, and our passionate chef and his bright and enthusiastic assistant.
As far as we are aware - and Batbayar is aware of just about everything cycling related in Mongolia, we were the first group of cyclists to ever follow such a route through Mongolia's far western Altai region. The route we followed was a combination of trekking trails and horse riding routes, picked and pieced together using Batbayar's extensive knowledge of the region, and now being tested as a cycling adventure tour by The LabRats.
The LabRat tradition has quickly grown from a hazy notion for testing a new tour, to a much-loved institution. LabRats are chosen for the attributes necessary for a first tour, easy-going, laid-back, good-humoured, tolerant, understanding, and fun. Being a good cyclist helps tremendously, and a passion for post-ride beers is seen as a positive boon.
That is not to say that a LabRat Run is a total unknown, quite the contrary, either I or my in-country partner will know the route, and one of us will have inspected it in general, if not always in intricate detail. This may mean one of us has cycled the route, or driven it, ridden it on a motorcycle, or in the case of the Altai, on a horse.
The Mongolia Altai ride was a truly wonderful adventure. A pure wilderness with little sign of electricity or motorcars, leave alone such modern wonders as the internet. The route was for the most part on unsealed roads, rideable on a gravel bike but on many occasions preferable on a mountain-bike. River crossings were a frequent occurrence, and soon hopping off the bike and getting we feet became second nature. Some of the climbs were stiff, to say the least, and saw most everyone off their machines huffing and puffing as they pushed to the summit. Overall though the riding was wonderful, car-free, carefree, fun gravel through a stunning wilderness of fresh air, eagles, yaks, nomads and the huge blue sky that Mongolia is renowned for.
The Altai region is too remote and far from Ulaanbaatar to become a regular annual PaintedRoads tour. Our existing Mongolia Kanghai tour ticks all the boxes for a beautiful wilderness ride, but is logistically far more accessible as well as being at a more favourable price point. However, maybe from time to time, we will throw the Altai into the mix.
And the LabRats - well, that not one person, at any time, for any reason, showed anything other than good nature, good humour, and humility says a huge amount for the spirit in which this adventure was approached, executed, and appreciated. The crew were all equally wonderful. To Mongolians, it seems that nothing is really an issue, and life is but a bundle of fun.
Many Thanks to all who took part, and here's to the next LabRat Run - 'not so much a holiday as an experiment!' Cheers 'Rats!
One of the most beautiful valleys I have yet to encounter
Even super-fit folk were at times left gasping, such were the Alti Mountain gradients
Life's realities are never far away in Mongolia - certainly never wrapped in plastic and stacked high on the supermarket shelves
Grassy meadows, rocky summits, barren valleys, desert where camels roam - the Altai can provide it all in just one day.
Our rest-day location
Bleak Skies never lasted long
At just 75 years old there's simply no reason to slow down yet
The view from our tents for our rest-day
Our camp chef was nothing less than a culinary genius
Russian built UAZ busses, like a VW Camper on steroids our support vehicles can go anywhere and everywhere...
however, they do insist on more than a little loving attention from their drivers, ace driver Gambol had a busy rest day...
as did the rest of the driver's, who's social life would seem to revolve around truck maintenance.
This morning was one of seemingly endless smooth gravel descent
Nigel - a senior LabRat
Echo crosses the aptly names White River
Phil take his rehydration very seriously
Our aptly named mechanic Mr Tool
Paul tackles one of many river crossings
Hum - at the highest point on the tour Echo and Phil manage to procure some traditional dress
The Tavan Bogd massif bordering Russia, China, and Mongolia
All goods in the Altai Tavan Bogd are carried by horse and camel - the bicycle is as mechanical as transport gets in this area
Inspect ancient petroglyphs
The ever jolly and jovial Munkhe
It's just not a LabRat Run without at least one photo of a knackered looking Keith
One of the few small 'settlements' we passed. The few simple houses were far outnumbered by piles of dry yak dung that serves as fuel for cooking and heating
Another river crossing
Lunch breaks are always a civilised affair with a cooked meal
PaintedRoads mascot Frodo send his emissary along for this trip
The LabRats regroup on a high pass
Ain't no mountain steep enough, ain't no river deep enough - quiet and never too far away, there was seemingly nowhere that Tool could not ride a bike
Claire & Emma "where's lunch"
First pass conquered
Like riding through the set of a wild west movie a herd of stallions thunders alongside us as our tyres drum the hollow sounding hard packed single track leading us on a rollercoaster ride across the Kanghi Mountains. For riding through Mongolia is an experience unlike any other PaintedRoads Tour to date. Far more than a simple cycling tour, a fortnight on the Steppe is all-encompassing, a veritable collage of sensations both physical and emotional, with sights, sounds, smells, and riding experiences morphing as we go.
Although predominantly dry the weather is not shy to change, with brief rain showers, more often than not soon giving way to warming sunshine as the clouds break and the sun bathes the land in a soft glow.
The route begins with some short sharp climbs and gravel trails through an almost treeless landscape. Once across the watershed, the trails give way to more flowing hard packed double track and the hillsides become thicker with vegetation and evergreen forests.
Mongolia’s sparse population is predominantly nomadic and, as is so often the case with people who are not strangers to a harsh existence, these yurt dwelling herders are friendly and generous, often visiting our camp to exchange wares with our crew, and offering as much hospitality as they are able when we visit their homes.
I have heard it sung that a picture paints a thousand words, so, rather than prattle on further, I shall leave it to my Olympus to lend a sense of this year’s pair of tours in the beautiful land of Mongolia.
Next year’s Mongolia Tour will run from June 29 until July 11 and bookings are already coming in. For more details please click here.
Mongolia, what a beautiful country but I think the whole tour group would agree with me in saying that the jovial and convivial presence David exuded over the tour was what made this tour really special. I would thoroughly recommend this tour on David's tour leader skills alone but the support crew and food also proved to be fabulous
Jonny Harding UK.
An amazing place to ride a bicycle. Lots of ‘WOW’ factor – especially on day 3. The only downside to all of the great scenery is that you keep stopping to take more photos! David and the local Mongolian crew have done an excellent job of putting together an off-road adventure designed for those of us cyclists who are primarily road bikers – enough challenge to push us, but not so technical that we were scared.
Pete Fotheringham the USA
Once again Sprog and I have had another wonderful trip with Painted Roads. This was my third trip with you and it was as well organized and enjoyable as the rest. Having the back-up of the truck when the going got tough was a comfort. How your helpful crew managed to produce such a variety of good food every day was a mystery. We were very appreciative of the way you personally scrutinized our bikes before every departure from camp. I would have no hesitation in recommending Painted Roads to any would-be adventurous cyclist. We had a lot of fun.
Ollie Hughes NZ
Our Mongolia cycling experience was mountain biking through an immense wilderness, wide open valleys, steep climbs, river crossings, yaks, horses, sheep, goats, and scattered nomad gers (yurts). It’s another world. Think “Wild West” on steroids, missing only the trees and snow-capped peaks. Painted Roads’ drivers, guides and cooks were exceptional.
Carol York USA
Yunnan Province, China - if pushed for my favourite tour I would have to say that this is it. A gem of a ride that takes us from the Tibetan town of Shangri-La, via passes high and gorges deep, to the town of Dali, home the Bai minority people. Between these two contrasting towns we have a stunning ride on almost deserted roads, as for nigh on two weeks we explore magnificent scenery of snow-capped peaks, pine forests, cobbled climbs, and an ancient tea trading town, We dine on what many who have tried it consider to be perhaps the finest cuisine in Asia - the kitchen of Yunnan really bears very little resemblance to the rather dull Cantonese fayre of your local Chinese restaurant.
This year’s tour was a small but splendid affair as Echo, Li, and I travelled with PaintedRoads regular David and newcomer Paul enjoying the finest weather we have experienced to date in this fine fine province.
PaintedRoads’ LabRat runs are fast becoming a popular tradition amongst our more adventurous guests. A new tour in an interesting and off the beaten path location, these inaugural runs contain, to one degree or another, an element of uncertainty somewhere along the way. Whereas usually, I go over a route one final time alone before running an inaugural tour, a LabRat Run involves taking a small group of laidback adventurous PR regulars along to join in the fun of the final pre-production ride.
This year's tour was through a region of China through which I have long planned to run a tour. Indeed as far back as the dawn of this century, when I travelled overland from Kathmandu to Hong Kong via Lhasa, I have been of the opinion that the Kham region of Sichuan Province was perhaps an altogether better place to experience Tibet than the Tibetan Autonomous Region. This feeling was reinforced when, in 2007 and 2008 (as far as my tatty olf memory recalls) I explored the area on a somewhat overloaded bicycle, camping and exploring and pondering running my own tours.
And so it came to be that at the tail end of May this year seven PaintedRoads regulars join me to ride the inaugural Sichuan Tour. We were supported by Echo, and our regular driver, mechanic, tour explorer, and trusted friend Lee. Additional support was provided by cycling guide Monk, and second driver Maveric.
The ride is surely beautiful and challenging. And this year the challenge was even tougher than expected with a startlingly early onset of the rain season and a two day section where the untimely demise of the main road building contractor had left the road in a state far worse than it was a year ago, quite the opposite to the situation we had been led to expect when exploring the way last June. It transpired that not only had the chap in charge of road repair operations made his way prematurely to the Happy Hunting Ground, he had also managed, rather cunningly, to spirit all of the contract’s money with him, leaving a swath of disgruntled peasants along the way eager for payment and and making sure that work didn’t continue until they received satisfaction.
The route was nothing if not eclectic. Road surfaces ranged from pristine tarmac, to wet and muddy, to gravel, to rural concrete byways. Climbing was an ongoing theme of the tour, with some of the longest ascents and consequent descents imaginable. Climbs of over 40 kilometres were all but a daily occurrence, and the downhills that followed, with the often shallow gradients that such a long climb often ensures, were laid back relaxing affairs through exquisite mountain scenery. Not all hills are surfaced equally in Sichuan though, and those seeking a more exciting pass to cross were not left wanting, as on occasion we ascend and descend on loose and exciting byways - shredding dude!
The highest pass of the tour was 4700 metres, with roads above 4000 metres cropping up on a leg shatteringly regular basis. However with sleeping elevations considerably lower than our highest point each day altitude-related health issues never cropped up, save of course for the inevitable breathlessness while crossing an oxygen-depleted pass. What was interesting to all was the difference a few hundred extra meters in altitude could have on a fellow or lass. When 4000 metres seemed OK, an extra 500 metres could take the wind from even the largest lungs. The passes were not only metaphorically breathtaking but also quite literally.
I feel that I have rambled on quite long enough, now I should leave the pictures to tell the story.
Before signing off though, I would like to thank David, Kreg, Marko, Dianne, JP, and Allison very much for not only their participation and good humour but also their enthusiasm for an adventure through a beautiful and challenging wilderness.
Ladies of the Yi minority group
The first major climb, 45 KMS of ascent from Daju village
Mani stones - the mantras of Tibetan Buddism carved in stone are a regular feature
One of many pristine road surfaces...
and one of many gravel roads
Local ladies at Bao Shan village
Leaving Bao Shan by boat
The beginning of two days of less than pristine byway
Two day's of unexpected road works left us all a tad tired
Lunch at 4500 metres
Descending from 4500 metres we loose 2000 metres on one wonderful descent
A Buddhist monastery
Another 40-kilometre descent
Many thanks to Echo, seen here at 4400 metres, for her endless hard work running the tour, always with a cheery smile
Later in the tour, the Tibetan homes are treated to a coat of white paint.
This chap offered us yak butter tea as we crossed the tour's highest pass
Cooking up lunch
Visiting a monastery
We were not always the only two-wheeled adventurers
The final high pass
Descending towards the fabled Shangri-La on the final day
Cycling guide Monk
The group - JP, Dianne, Allison, Kreg, David, Keith, Marko, and at the back Monk
This year's Ho Chi Minh Trail tour through the mountains of Central Vietnam was, to say the least, great fun. Including Phong and I in the count, there were six of us riding this somewhat undulating route from the nations hectic capital Hanoi to the beautiful riverside town of Hoi An, some thousand kilometres to the south.
The venerable General Arthur, and Kiwi David, both PaintedRoads regulars, were joined by Nicholas and Mark, two chums from the far north of the United Kingdom who’s determination to train for the tour through a bleak Scottish winter can be seen as nothing other than highly commendable.
Personally, I enjoyed the tour tremendously. With an overcast sky for 99% of the trip, we were treated to temperatures mostly in the low 20ºs, with the mercury nudging the 30ºs just once so far as I was aware, and even then for less than an hour. To complement the excellent climatic conditions we had a group of people with a similar approach to their cycling, meaning a relaxed bunch with the occasional turn to a light-hearted touch of competitiveness. And when the day’s ride was over, and the chilled beer emerged from the guesthouse fridge, the aprés ride atmosphere was every bit as good as the riding.
A fine tour then? I will leave the final word to bicycle tour newcomers Mark and Nicholas.
Mark Adams - (47) A portly middle-aged gentleman and recreational cyclist with a penchant for long weekend rides, the occasional Audax, and the odd Sportive.
"I don’t do package holidays and hate guided tours. It’s been 25 years since I did either and the memory still grates. My conundrum is I have a window of opportunity for an adventure, no time to plan and a finite window in which to complete it. With a very clear idea of what I want to do and more importantly what I don’t want to do. I take to the internet and find Painted Roads.
Point to point cycling in remote terrain travelling through a fascinating country, delivered with a great personal touch from a small independent company - who could ask for more? David, the owner of Painted Roads, cycled every inch of the ride with the group and managed the group in a very non-intrusive way. His light touch allowed the group and individuals to ride their own ride. This allowed the group dynamic to comfortably evolve. This relaxed approach was possible due to David’s extensive efforts in planning the trip, his excellent choice in the local guide and the many years’ experience gained cycle touring and delivering trips in SE Asia.
I’m a cyclist and primary goal is to maximise my time in the saddle. I set out with this objective; with no great desire to be ushered from one tourist attraction to the next. Travelling through remote and challenging terrain to roll into a small village allows you to unwittingly immerse yourself in the culture. The flip side is that this requires a degree of patience and expectation management in respect of accommodation. However, this is a compromise that pays back in dividends through the experience gained. The juxtaposition between the time spent on the trip and the post-trip R&R at one of the more popular tourist resorts was stark. This really highlighted the quality of the experience gained by travelling by bike in a small group through towns and villages which have been little impacted by tourism.
One of the very many lasting memories of the trip will be rounding a bend on a, particularly long descent to happen upon a troop of baboons crossing the road. My immediate thought was I know the protocol for unwanted attention from dogs, but don’t remember anything in the briefing relating to baboons. I stop, watch then make their way back into the jungle and feel blessed to have encountered them.
Having returned home I now long to create the opportunity to join David and Painted Roads on another great adventure. My confidence boosted by the trip down the HCM Trail I’m looking for something bigger, more challenging, more remote … Whatever my next adventure may be, I sincerely hope it is with Painted Roads".
Nicholas Croll - Scots man, newcomer to cycle touring, and not afraid of the occasional artic run.
"I undertook my first ever cycle 'holiday' with David Walker/Painted Roads by riding the Ho Chi Minh Trail tour in March 2018. I didn't really have a holiday, instead what I did get was an adventure that far exceeded my expectations and included magnificent scenery, fantastic cycling, great food and top class hospitality.
The highest praise I can offer is that the next time I am seeking a cycling 'adventure' my first point of contact will be Painted Roads. Forget the large tour operators for your next cycle tour - choose Painted Roads and you won't have any regrets. Your biggest problem will be deciding which one of the fantastic sounding tours you will take.......good luck!"
At 75 you would think he would have slowed down by now - General Arthur could just be the real-life Benjamin Button.
An old US airstrip north of the Seventeenth Parallel
Morning rush hour on the Ho Chi Minh Trail
Exploring the path less travelled
Visiting a brick factory
Final dash to the tea break